LONDON: Stability and long-term planning aren’t usually associated with football in the Gulf.
Since the start of the 2019/20 Arabian Gulf League season there have been 22 coaching changes among the 14 clubs. In the desperate desire for success, long-term planning is a fantasy for most, with short-term success and job security the modus operandi for most clubs and officials.
But Abu Dhabi-based Al-Jazira are looking to buck that trend, and in newly-appointed sporting director Mads Davidsen, they have the man capable of building and cultivating the desired culture and environment within the club that will breed what every football club craves – sustained success.
“I was brought here for a project they call ‘Sustainable Sporting Success’,” the Dane told Arab News.
“That’s the presentation I had when I was interviewed. I bring a model that I have kind of designed myself through some analytical work, some evidential proof in the world of football, but also my own experiences working in China where we built up a club from the ground,” he said.
Despite the renewed focus on youth, it is one of Al-Jazira’s stalwarts that is pushing the team toward their third AGL title, with national team striker Ali Mabkhout in almost career-best form, hitting 14 goals in his last eight matches — including three hat tricks.
“I saw from my experience what works and what doesn’t work and how you can do it sustainably, so you’re not spending a lot or you’re not depending on one lucky season and the next you are a disaster,” Davidsen added.
“We’re trying to make a club that can be very stable, that can perform at the same level continuously and not overspend at the same time.”
In a league known for its pursuit of high-profile appointments, especially in managerial positions, Davidsen is certainly not the highest profile acquisition to arrive in the Emirates. But he comes with an established reputation within Asia for his work at Chinese giants Shanghai Port (formerly known as Shanghai SIPG) where he worked alongside the likes of Sven-Göran Eriksson, and Brazilian internationals Oscar and Hulk.
The fact that Al-Jazira turned to him to guide them on this journey, he says, is a sign the club were ready to take this step forward.
“I think in some way the club was ready for this,” he explained.
“And to be honest I think that’s why they hired me. They could’ve hired a lot of other good sporting directors, they could’ve also hired someone with much more higher-level experience than me, they could probably go after people who were sporting directors in the Premier League or in La Liga which I have never been.”
“But I am convinced they hired me because I have proven something with this model,” said Davidsen.
While the Dane hasn’t yet been in the role 12 months, there are already signs of his influence in the squad this year – the youngest in the Arabian Gulf League. As Davidsen explains, that is no accident.
“What we did since the summer we have sold or terminated 14 players’ contracts, which of course has lowered the average age,” he explained. “We simply signed a lot of academy players and we started to sell or loan out players who were a little bit older and we couldn’t see fit into our style of play.”
Promoting young local players has become part of the big picture.
“I use the example of a player like Abdullah Ramadan, who has had a really good season and is now a regular with the UAE national team and has been two times the Player of the Month in the UAE league,” Davidsen said.
“He would not have played if we had kept two all of the very experienced players in his position. He would not have been given a chance. You have to believe in the youth.”
“When we played (this week) against Fujairah we finished the game with the two full backs who are 18 and 20 years old and we scored two goals when they were in the game, which for me is great example that the coach, and the whole club, believe in the project.”
Despite the renewed focus on youth, it is one of Al Jazira’s stalwarts that is pushing the team toward their third AGL title, with national team striker Ali Mabkhout in almost career-best form, hitting 14 goals in his last eight matches – including three hattricks.
“Ali is of course first of all a fantastic player, one of the best players without doubt in the region, and on the continent,” Davidsen said.
“I think with our new way of working we have also given Ali a new momentum, a different kind of motivation. He’s a leader and he’s important for the group because he sees a lot of young players now that need his help and need his support.
“Also if you look at his scoring rates, it’s higher this year than it has been in previous years,” Davidsen added.
“So his performance actually went up this year, which is a great example of a player who has stepped up when it was necessary, because he could see that we offloaded a lot of the experienced players, so he was one of the ones that was left that had to bind together the team.”
With a narrow two-point lead over surprise packets Baniyas with just five games remaining – all against teams currently outside the top five – this is Al-Jazira’s title to lose. But as sweet as success would be, for Davidsen, it is only the beginning.